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For 20 years, Music Maker has helped blues musicians feel special, proud

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Big Ron Hunter teams with the Music Maker Relief Foundation to welcome music students from the Berklee College of Music into his Winston-Salem home. His living room was packed to capacity with people, instruments, and music. (Lauren Carroll/Journal)

FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Guitar Slim was dying, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

The old bluesman, weak with cancer, had some parting instructions for his young friend, a graduate student 50 years his junior.

Over the previous year, Guitar Slim had welcomed the student, a Connecticut transplant obsessed with the blues, into the tight-knit community of Greensboro blues musicians who, in the late 1980s, were keeping alive their heritage, singing those haunting songs of heartache and hardship, still bending those E strings late into the night.

But there was one bluesman that Guitar Slim insisted the student still needed to hear, an elusive man living in Winston-Salem who had walked away from a promising career, disillusioned by a music industry that paid him neither royalties nor respect.

“Find Guitar Gabriel,” the dying bluesman told Tim Duffy.

Duffy and his wife, Denise, were new to Winston-Salem in 1987, living behind a used-car lot on Peter’s Creek Parkway. She worked in the apparel industry; he was a substitute teacher and finished his master’s degree in folklore from UNC Chapel Hill.

Duffy asked around. Some of his white friends had heard of Guitar Gabriel but were too scared to scour rough-and-tumble East Winston in search of him.

A few months passed. No Guitar Gabriel.

One day, Duffy was subbing at a school on the city’s east side.

“Does anyone know Guitar Gabriel?” Duffy asked the students.

One said he died in a house fire. Another student said he got shot.

One girl piped up: “He’s my neighbor.” She drew Duffy a map to a drink house where Guitar Gabriel hung out and played.

Duffy knocked on the door and was met with cold, quizzical stares.

“Guitar Slim sent me,” he said, setting them at ease.

Someone led him to Piedmont Circle where Guitar Gabriel lived. The bluesman, carrying a guitar, greeted him, sat down and played, leaving Duffy with chills.

“It was like listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Duffy said, referring to the famed Texas bluesman.

He noticed something else about Guitar Gabriel.

“He was living in utter squalor.”

It was an injustice that Duffy could not let stand.

After earning his trust, Duffy got to work helping Guitar Gabriel, driving him all around the city to pay his bills, cash his checks, make his doctor’s appointments.

Duffy and his wife found the need for help extended beyond Guitar Gabriel to other veterans of what was once a rollicking blues scene. Such entertainers as Willa Mae Buckner, a guitarist and snake handler; Captain Luke, the one-time boxer with the buttery baritone; and Preston Fulp, a moonshiner and old-time guitarist, all caretakers of what the Duffys consider America’s greatest art form, were struggling to find money to buy food and keep warm.

In 1994, three years after meeting Guitar Gabriel, the Duffys started the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which has helped more than 300 artists around the country, issued more than 150 CDs of their work and put many of them on the stages of some of the most hallowed concert halls in the world, including Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center.

“I always wanted to travel,” said Big Ron Hunter, a blues singer and guitarist from Winston-Salem, who has played in Switzerland, France and Australia under the Music Maker banner. “I’ve been everywhere because of them.”

Music Maker, now based in Hillsborough, has been celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a new coffee-table book, a two-CD compilation and an exhibition that was most recently at the New York Public Library. The celebration culminates Oct. 4 with a homecoming featuring 50 Music Maker artists who will perform at Old Murphy School in Durham.

From its humble beginnings in Winston-Salem, Music Maker has grown to earn the support of such musical heavyweights as Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Taj Mahal.

Derek Trucks, who plays with the Allman Brothers Band and is widely hailed as one of the all-time guitar greats, is also a supporter.

“Many of us realize that we’ve been fortunate to make a living making music and a lot of our heroes didn’t get that shake,” Trucks said. “Anybody who is out there trying to right those wrongs, you want to get behind.”

Helping the artists

Duffy has a strong love of traditional music and making field recordings of folk artists, areas he studied at Warren Wilson College and, later, in Kenya.

Winston-Salem, the Duffys found, was fertile territory, filled with veterans of black carnivals and minstrel shows, and performers who used to entertain farmers selling their tobacco at warehouses on Trade Street.

With those outlets long gone, many blues musicians practiced their craft on the city’s thriving drink-house circuit. Drink houses are private homes not licensed to sell alcohol, where the liquor flowed and the music howled until the morning light.

It was on this circuit, with Guitar Gabriel serving as his escort, where Duffy was introduced to many of the musicians who continued the blues legacy of such early legends as Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

They were aging, impoverished and well past their heyday, but a desire to play and perform their music still burned.

When it came time to help these artists, Duffy used his academic training and experience in Kenya to consider what worked and what didn’t.

In Kenya, for example, he saw well-meaning Peace Corps programs turn corrupt.

He also saw how many folklorists treated their subjects.

“I wanted to set up a new model in folklore that deals with the subjects not as subjects but as partners, and together we’d work and learn,” he said.

First, he had to crack Guitar Gabriel, who was born Robert Jones and later recorded under the name Nyles Jones. Guitar Gabriel had a minor hit in 1970 with “Welfare Blues,” taken from his album, “My South, My Blues.”

Like so many traditional artists, the royalties off the sale of his music never reached him. Disenchanted, he headed back to Winston-Salem and was often seen wearing a distinctive white sheepskin hat, singing to children coming off the bus, in churches and drink houses.

“They had a simple business arrangement,” Denise Duffy explained of her husband’s relationship with Guitar Gabriel. “Gabe just told Tim, ‘If you ever cheat me, I’ll kill you.’ Gabe had not had a lot of great experiences with people treating him fairly. It was a long process of building trust.”

Music Maker has a multipronged approach. A sustenance program helps musicians meet their basic needs. Captain Luke, who is the only surviving musician among the first that the Duffys helped, got help buying a car. Willa Mae Buckner got a kerosene heater during a winter when one of her neighbors froze to death. Essie Mae Brooks, a singer who lives in Georgia, got an air conditioner.

Brett Bonner, the editor of Living Blues magazine, said these gifts make a big impact.

“It didn’t cost $50,000, it cost $500, and it changed her life,” Bonner said of the air conditioner. “It matters. They buy someone dentures. It changes your life. These are beautiful, little things.”

Expanding the reach of the blues

Early on, Tim Duffy used his training to record Guitar Gabriel and a few other artists. He was able to get that recording into the hands of Mark Levinson, a pioneer in the audio industry and a recording engineer.

Levinson was intrigued by Duffy’s project and offered to remaster the field recording using the finest equipment available for a compilation that became known as “A Living Past.”

Other CDs have followed, allowing longtime musicians who have never set foot in a studio the chance to make a proper recording. Music Maker markets the CDs, which often wind up in the hands of blues lovers in Europe.

Music Maker also arranges concerts, with some of the musicians playing at blues festivals all over Europe in front of several thousand people.

“You see a change, a physical change in the way they walk,” Duffy said.

Buckner told the Winston-Salem Journal in 2000 that performing at Carnegie Hall was the highlight of her life.

“It’s hard to describe what something like that means,” she said softly. “It made me feel special and real proud.”

Captain Luke, who was born Luther B. Mayer, has been on some of those trips, playing to crowds in Argentina, Germany and France, as well as New York and Washington, D.C.

Captain Luke, who is 86 and lives in a small apartment off Cleveland Avenue, never dreamed he would become a professional singer or that thousands would hear him sing those old songs he grew up hearing in the fields of South Carolina. He worked as a boxer and at Merita Bakery before signing one day for Guitar Gabriel. The two became fast friends.

Guitar Gabriel later introduced him to Duffy.

Visitors from other countries occasionally stop by Captain Luke’s apartment to absorb what they can about the blues and rural music.

Big Ron Hunter gets visitors, too. Hunter is a generation removed from the original class of Music Maker musicians. He met Duffy at the foundation’s 10th anniversary celebration, wowing them with what he calls his “happy blues.”

In March, Music Maker arranged for about 20 students from the Berklee College of Music in Boston to visit blues musicians in North Carolina. It included a stop at the small home that Hunter shares with his wife, Belinda.

The students crammed into his house — young people from Germany, Norway and Italy among them — strumming their guitars, banjos and mandolins as Hunter led them through spirituals and old-time songs. One woman, a faculty member, reached such a state of joy, her eyes brimmed with tears.

Through it all, Hunter, 60, wore a magnetic smile, happy to share his music with another generation, blessed to be able to now play music for a living.

He recalled what it was like to play in front of 8,000 people at Lincoln Center in New York.

“All these people were clapping and screaming,” he said, his eyes closed, his arms waving. “Lord, they love us. They love the blues. They love the blues.”